- Green Blog
My home is filled with plants. I am just a hoarder, it seems. And I keep acquiring more. So many that I have had to get plant lights for the ones in the lower light rooms. But some of my favorites are ones I have had for a long time. They bloom in winter, a sight guaranteed to make me grin. Several are even ready for a Christmas surprise.Houseplants that Bloom in Winter
Among my indoor plants are quite a few blooming houseplants. My holiday cactus comes to mind. I have had some difficulty getting it to bloom for the holidays over the years, but now it has its own plant light and the flowers show up reliably. I love the hot pink, tubular flowers paired with the notched, green leaves. They look like tropical flowers, which is appropriate since holiday cactus are native to tropical regions. They are not like their desert cousins, and actually need even moisture and gentle light.
I have an amaryllis plant that I keep potted up year around. In fact, just writing about it reminded me I needed to bring it out of the attic and down to heat, light, and water. It has been in quarantine for about 7 weeks, and now I need to give it a little love. Pretty soon it will send up flower stalks that are blooming around Christmas. I also have some paper whites to start. These types of winter bulbs grow easily indoors and produce blooms by the holidays. Winter bulbs are all over stores this time of year and also make great gifts. I lift my paper whites after blooming and let them dry a bit before I store them for the next year.
One plant that seems to bloom off and on all year is my Meyer lemon. It still has some blooms coming even in winter, but it also has some tasty looking lemons on the little tree. The glossy leaves are gorgeous, but it’s the white flowers, with their citrus scent that are really appealing. Plus, those lemons will put the zing in my holiday cooking.Poinsettia Problems
One of the plants associated with the holidays is the poinsettia. I have one from last year that seems pretty happy, but it lost its red bracts. I cut it back around April and gradually introduced it to the outdoors. I fed it monthly with a balanced fertilizer and pinched back any leggy growth to keep it nice and tidy. By Labor Day, I moved it back inside. At the end of September, I started the all important short day, long night cycle. I put a box over the plant at night, for at least 14 hours. I did this for about 10 weeks and it is supposed to be coloring up. It is not. Gardening is not an exact science and these are notoriously finicky plants that need exact conditions to produced colored bracts.
In spite of my poinsettia fail, everyone else is doing beautifully. And the poinsettia will continue to get my best care until I try again next year. In the meantime, I have plenty of blooming houseplants to cheer me up this winter.
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Imagine the school of your dreams, where learning at the ages of 5 and 6 is not only fun and creative, but something of a live fairy tale immersed in an environment of living, growing fruits, vegetables, trees, and flowers. Timothy Long and Julian Ravenscroft have helped create a magical environment for kindergarten and first grade students at Daleville Elementary. And their story just gets better and better.How It Began
Six years ago, this school won a grant of $15,000 from the Ball Brothers Foundation. When it was suggested that a portion of those funds be used for new classroom computers, Julian Ravenscroft, a 7th grade math teacher, wanted just the opposite. He was frustrated with teaching children with traditional methods; tired of teaching to the test. He envisioned something on a much grander scale.
Instead, a portion of the funds were invested in over a hundred apple trees which were planted in a nearby field by kindergarten students, who were coached by high school students. But that was just the beginning.The Idea Grows
With some new farm-to-school grant funding, Tim Long and Julian Ravenscroft purchased and created a 20X80 foot greenhouse and named it “Kinder Garden.” The lucky kindergarten children at Daleville Elementary now plant seeds and learn how to take care the plants. The food that’s harvested goes to their own cafeteria for meals.
Currently in the Kinder Garden, beans, onions, garlic, two kinds of peppers, broccoli, cabbage, tomatoes, potatoes and two types of carrots are growing. Planting carrots takes place in fall, when the kids are also picking up apples and cutting them up for applesauce, which is served to them at lunch.
Although they’re still improving on it, the greenhouse is now just a part of a 4-acre “outdoor learning lab.” In addition to the apple trees, there are now peach trees, 150 black and red raspberry canes, hazelnut bushes and asparagus. Fencing around the project allows other plants to climb and grow. All is organic and no chemicals are used. But there’s more.Real Fun in Learning
As this project moved forward, amazing things began to take form. In addition to the extensive orchard, the garden’s 20-foot (6 m) high entrance tunnel is covered with wisteria. To the right of the tunnel is a bamboo forest. There’s a “tinker nook” for crafts and art projects with long tables and a canopy of hardy kiwi for shade. On one gentle slope a long corrugated pipe with two gutter tracks was installed — a slide for kids that’s surrounded by mint. A magical, elevated stage and set where children can dress up and act out skits and presentations are at the heart of the area. A pizza oven, an octagon porch swing/hammock structure and science lessons involving making blackberry jam over a fire – this learning lab provides unforgettable early memories for Daleville’s kids.
The dream project continues to grow, with more grants, more ideas and more field trips.
Speaking to his inspiration, Julian Ravenscroft said, “our volunteers are the real reason any of this exists” and he specifically mentions his wife, Kathie, who has dedicated countless hours toward dreaming up and writing curriculum for most of the “learning adventures.”
More than just a school garden, the youngest of school children happily enjoy integrated learning about the cycles of nature and the joys of gardening, as well as traditional academics. The Kinder Garden is a consummate example of how children can grow to love the learning process in an imaginative, natural environment. We at Gardening Know How are happy to be a sponsor of this rich, inspiring program.
Every year, Gardening Know How awards $1,000 to 20 different, hand-picked garden projects across the United States and Canada. If your community or school garden has a growing, unmet need for more soil, seeds, fertilizers, building materials, or even just help getting the word out about your program, we’re ready and willing to help you meet those needs. As community gardens and school gardening programs spring up all over, we’re happy to do our part to help. Click here to learn how to apply for your own sponsorship.
Interested in learning more about school or community gardens? Visit our Community Gardening for Everyone page today.
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A lot of people celebrate the holiday season with festive lights and décor. Lord knows my mom was one of them with so many lights you’d think the neighborhood itself was on show. And then there are the gardeners with nifty displays and crafty gifts from their harvests. My mother did a little of that too. Unfortunately, I don’t have any holiday related traditions from the garden per se, but I do have a garden holiday of sorts.A Charlie Brown Christmas Tree
I’m not gonna lie, I’ve done my fair share of decorating with plants from the garden over the years. That being said, it was a Facebook post I came across a while back that gave me pause. It included pics with decorative Christmas branches used in the home. Instantly I was taken down memory lane to a time long ago when my daughter, then just a year old, and I were alone for Christmas. Times were tough and we didn’t have much. We had no tree. We had no decorations. Heck, we barely had food. But it didn’t stop me from making the occasion special. What I had was imagination, along with inspiration taken from one of my childhood favorites growing up – A Charlie Brown Christmas.
I went outside, picked a pine branch and a few other natural items. I made some decorations and then proudly displayed our humble little “tree” on a table in the corner of our living room. My daughter loved it! It was in that moment that I realized you don’t need to have a lot to create happiness. All you need is whatever you do have, along with a little imagination and lots of love. As time passed and my family grew, I think I lost track of that. But this simple post reminded me once again that life (and the holidays) is what you make it. And to honor that fond memory, I decided to do it again with a Charlie Brown Christmas tree remake.
I now have a Charlie Brown Christmas tree in the form of a large branch plucked straight from the garden. It’s actually one that I keep year-round in a decorative vase. When the holidays roll around, I fill the tiny limbs with mini ornaments. This humble little tree reminds me of where I’ve been and how far I’ve come. It keeps me grounded. I’ve since expanded this new-found tradition into the garden, scanning the surroundings for an appealing “branch” to decorate. This one isn’t for my benefit though. It’s strictly for the birds, along with any other critters that may visit the backyard wildlife garden. Hanging from the limbs of this Christmas tree are homemade suet balls and birdseed-covered peanut butter pinecones. Sometimes there’s fruity garland comprised of dried apples and orange slices.
Festive lights and décor are fine, but I prefer to keep things simple. Life is too short for anything else.
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If there was one plant that reminds me of the holidays, it would be a chestnut tree. While this species is not typically thought of as a holiday plant, chestnuts, and the trees they grow on, created some of my most vivid holiday memories. You see, there was never a holiday dinner when my mother didn’t forget about the chestnuts she had roasting in the oven.How To Roast Chestnuts in an Oven
Learning how to roast chestnuts in an oven is quite simple. You start by making a slit through the shell on one side of the chestnut. My mother always cut the flat side. Then, she would soak the chestnuts in water while she was preparing other dishes. Just as we sat down to dinner, she would pop the chestnuts into a 350 degree F. (177 C.) oven.
My parents loved the holidays. Both Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners were multi-course feasts that took my parents weeks to create. Being of Italian descent, the first course was always pasta, followed by the main course of meat, potatoes, and vegetable dishes.
These would be followed by a course of salads, then desserts. Just as we were all feeling uncomfortably full, my mother would jump up and run to the oven to retrieve the chestnuts. It never failed. She always forgot they were roasting in the oven.
I love roasted chestnuts. Even though I had already eaten too much, and the chestnuts were sometimes a little overdone, that didn’t stop me from digging in and grabbing my share. I wasn’t the only one. Rarely were there any leftover chestnuts for the next day’s dinner.
This scenario played out every holiday meal, but it wasn’t the only blunder my mother made when it came to chestnuts. It seems that after my parents built their house and were landscaping the property, they had bought what they thought was a chestnut tree.Not All Chestnuts Are the Same
I was too young to remember at the time, but the story was told every holiday meal as we indulged in the roasted chestnuts. The tree my parents had mistakenly purchased was a horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum). Trees which produce edible chestnuts belong to the Castanea genus.
Horse Chestnuts and their close relative, the American Buckeye, produce toxic nuts. These species have leaves that look quite similar to those of edible chestnut trees, so it’s easy to understand how my parents made that mistake.
Luckily, my parents realized the difference before the tree was large enough to produce nuts. Thus, the chestnuts we had for our holiday meals always came from the grocery store. As for the Horse Chestnut tree in the yard, it remained there until well after I had moved out and had started a family of my own.
I suppose my parents could have cut down the Horse Chestnut and replaced it with an edible chestnut tree. In truth though, Horse Chestnuts are attractive landscape trees. I can still remember the beautiful clusters of blossoms in shades of white, pink, and yellow that this tree produced each spring.
Any time I see one of these beauties blooming in the spring or I find myself purchasing my own chestnuts at the grocery store for my holiday meals, I think back to these laughable moments of my childhood. Chestnut trees may not be the typical holiday plant, but for me, they never fail to remind me of this special time of the year.
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Christmas plants are festive and beautiful, and it’s lots of fun to grow your own instead of buying them at the garden store at Christmas time. So many are tossed away after the holidays that anyone with an interest in rescuing plants can have a field day.
As a confirmed plant rescuer, I’ve saved many a poinsettia tossed out after Christmas by my San Francisco neighbors. My very favorite Christmas rescue plant though is the Norfolk Island pine we found by a garbage can in January a few years back.Norfolk Island Pine
Norfolk Island pine trees (Araucaria heterophylla) are not in the pine family at all. They are native to the tropics of Norfolk Island, near Australia, that gives them their name.
In warm zones like USDA zones 10 and 11, Norfolk Island pines can be planted in the landscape and grow slowly into tall, shapely specimens, up to 200 feet (61 m.) tall. They are beloved for their straight trunks and graceful, symmetrical branches adorned with soft, inward-curving needles.Potted Christmas Trees
Norfolk Island pines are absolutely adorable when they are young. When several young trees are grouped closely in a pot, they resemble a small, lush, soft-needled pine. These potted specimens are sold in the United States as living Christmas trees. Sadly, they are often tossed out after the holidays.
I happen to have found one of these discarded potted Christmas trees that had been left on the sidewalk with the garbage in early January one year. We brought it home and gave it water, then let it sit in a bright corner of the garden to see what happened. In short— it thrived.Living Christmas Tree
This little Norfolk Island pine became a living Christmas tree that I have used year after year. I left it as it came for a few years, then made the difficult decision to remove all of the little trees other than the principal one. I tried to save them by potting them up separately, but they died.
Once the side seedlings were removed, the tree no longer resembled the perfect potted Christmas tree. It looked much more like something you would plant in the yard than a lush ornament. Over time, the lower branches took the place of those removed. Today it still holds a place of honor in the festivities every holiday.
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I never buy a Christmas tree anymore because I have my big indoor Norfolk pine that is potted. It suffices to hold any ornaments and lights I want, but doesn’t take up a lot of extra room. Back in the day, though, when we would purchase a tree, I always went for the blue spruce. It was more expensive than say a fir, but well worth it.Real Christmas Trees
Christmas trees bring in their delicious piney scent and serve as a reminder of green things growing and bounty. They were first used by the Germans and brought to the U.S. sometime in the 1800s. Originally people just hung swags of local evergreens over their mantles and doors but soon transitioned to entire trees. The original trees were lit by candles— which in today’s safety first parlance seems like a dangerous nightmare. The lights were a reflection of the twinkle of stars seen among the forest trees.Types of Christmas Trees
My first trees as an adult were sad little affairs because I had no money. Over time, I was able to select much prettier trees. I like Frasier firs, but my real love is blue spruce. The best Christmas tree to me has firm, thick branches (I have always had cats) that are well spaced and not too gappy. Blue spruce trees are qualified and they also have beautiful blue-green needles. Show stoppers.
My family has always had a fondness for blue spruce. My grandpa was an advocate for growing blue spruce on his property. When they were big enough, he harvested his own Christmas tree. We would go to my grandparent’s home for a tree trimming party. Out came the blown glass ornaments, whose paint had mostly separated from them over the years. Also, the tinsel, which was similarly old and came in separate strands. You had to separate each strand individually and carefully drape them over the stems. The lights were ancient and needed to be gone through one by one, as one damaged bulb would cause the whole line to fail to ignite. It was a tedious, although time honored process. Hot cocoa for children, and hot buttered rum for adults, accompanied the whole affair.
My adult trees were at first cut plants which the city picked up after New Year’s and composted. A little while later, I decided to try growing blue spruce myself and got a little guy at the local nursery. The first year, it was a tiny little specimen with just a few twinkle lights and hardly any ornaments. After the fifth year, it was almost too big to lift to bring in, but we did, and it was decorated to beat the band. After that year, we planted the tree in the yard, where it probably still resides.
I don’t buy trees anymore, as I think it is unsustainable nonsense. I have my Norfolk pine which takes enough décor to make things festive. I do kind of miss those big blue spruces of my younger years though. They say change is good, so I will keep my memories, but also keep my indoor pine, which serves as a year-round vision of nature and evergreen beauty.
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A live tree or an artificial tree? The question is one that can cause surprisingly emotional debates. It shouldn’t matter that much, in the big picture, and yet it does. Most of us have strong feelings one way or the other when it comes to Christmas trees.
I always come down on the real tree side, mostly live trees these years, container trees that I can plant afterward. Given the choice between a cut tree and an artificial one, I would still reject the fake and go with the real. That’s because real trees smell of the Christmas magic of my youth.Childhood Christmas Traditions
Holidays are the storage chests for our memories, and not a Christmas can pass without visions of Christmases past, whether we will or no. Part of this magnetism for memories comes from the fact that holidays can be so magical to kids, with visions of Santa Claus and sugar plums and “good children” rewarded.
While many of us try to rebuild our family patterns in different ways, Christmas may not be top on our lists. For me, at least, that is the case. While I have deliberately altered many aspects of my family dynamics from childhood, Christmas traditions remain. That means that no Christmas feels like a “real” Christmas without a real tree.Smells of Christmas
More than any other American holiday, traditional Christmas celebrations are sensory delights. There are the holiday sounds, the crackle and pop of the fire, the Christmas carols on the radio. The sight of wrapped gifts and decorations.
Mostly there are the smells: the food cooking – during my childhood it was always a turkey in the oven, the kind with the little thing that popped out to tell you it was done. After the turkey, the apple pie baking added sweetness to the kitchen fragrance.
Behind it all, the rich pine scent of the Christmas tree. No artificial tree could ever fill the house with fragrance the way our cut trees did in childhood.Christmas Today
My holiday traditions have changed dramatically over the years. The heaps of gifts have given way to a few, carefully chosen presents; the turkey feasts yielded to my vegetarian habits.
Yet the real Christmas tree remains. I still love the refreshing scent of pine branches. Whenever I spend Christmas in France, I buy container trees, since I have space to plant them. In San Francisco, I buy cut trees. It goes against the grain, but not to the same extent that using a “fake tree” would.
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What is my favorite thing to do outside besides gardening? As a garden writer, I’m obviously very invested in the two acres of property that surround my house. Growing a vegetable garden, tending to the lawn, trimming trees and planting flowers take up much of my spare time. Yet, sometimes I’m so busy gardening that I forget to savor the beauty I’ve created. Sound familiar?Stop and Smell the Roses
For me, taking a break from gardening means I can spend time with my horses. I learned to ride as a teenager and have been a horseowner ever since. Now, one might think my two hobbies are quite different, but there are surprising similarities between gardening and owning horses:
In addition to their similarities, I find my two hobbies are also quite complementary. For starters, horses produce copious amount of stall waste – about ten tons per horse annually! The combination of manure and the wood shavings I use for bedding create the perfect composting balance of greens and browns.
While cleaning stalls is not my favorite outdoor activity, I have to say that I’m impressed by how the horse manure compost has transformed the clay-based soil in my vegetable garden. It’s now a rich, fertile growing medium. The soil is loose and workable. It drains well and I no longer need to use commercial fertilizers.
In return, my garden’s fertility allows me to harvest more than enough produce for my family. This leaves garden space to grow treats, like carrots, for my horses. I also use well-composted horse manure to fertilize the pasture. The grass grows thicker and greener, which reduces feeding costs for the horses.
Yet, the interconnection between my hobbies is more than the benefits they provide one another. It’s about how the combination of these two hobbies work together to relieve stress and boost my mood.
I gain an added sense of happiness whenever I look up from my gardening to see my horses peacefully grazing. Likewise, viewing my garden from the back of my horse gives me a different perspective on the health of my plants. In the end, I find that enjoying the great outdoors and the beauty I’ve created is enhanced by having a hobby in addition to gardening.
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Located in the heart of the Bronx, New York is the Academy for Career and Living Skills, an extraordinary school for students with a wide range of severe and or multiple disabilities. Serving over 600 students from grades 6 to12, more than 200 of them participate in the school’s horticultural program.
There are several gardens on this campus, a blessing in an urban area where most schools are short on space for such things. Peter McCoy, teacher in the horticultural program, tells us about a new dedicated garden space that serves the multi-fold purpose of providing a space for learning and skill development, as well as a respite for experiencing a peaceful green space. The Quality Review writes the school developed an indoor/outdoor facility to educate students about healthy eating habits, issues concerning the environment, and developing essential work skills. In fact, their stated mission is “to provide hands-on learning opportunities in urban agriculture and sustainability.”
Many students attending school here have been diagnosed as being somewhere on the autism spectrum. Autistic students, among others, benefit greatly from the hands-on activities in the garden, as well as the great opportunities for developing social skills. Other students attending the school are non-verbal, using voice activated devices and software programmed onto their iPads. This helps them learn to identify the garden’s many vegetables, herbs and flowers. Overall, the students work with their teachers and staff, including Physical, Occupational and Speech Therapists, to develop their skills in planting, cultivating, harvesting and composting.A Garden in the Bronx
The Academy for Career and Living Skills is a large school in New York’s Bronx borough. They are fortunate to have developed multiple garden tracts on the surrounding land. Peter McCoy is grateful for this much property, since other schools in the area have much more limited space. The Academy’s horticultural program dedicated a plot this year to pollinator and native plants, an area now known as the sensory garden. They have begun moving seedlings to transition them to the outer garden.
The horticultural committee of Peter McCoy, Paula Lucas and Orlean Sirio works behind the scenes to keep the garden program going. They identify classes and instructors whose students are interested in watering, planting and composting. During harvest season, they guide the students as they learn how to harvest various vegetables and herbs.
Any excess produce is sold to the community, an effort run by the students. The school opens up to parents and guardians for special events. Proceeds from the school’s plant and produce sales go back into the horticultural program’s budget.Learning About the Garden
The Academy is an ungraded school system with students ranging from 14 to 21 in age. The majority are junior high and high school ages. Although it exists under New York’s school system the school is self-contained and is dedicated to special education for severe and multiple disabilities.
Before COVID, there were 650 students in attendance but, as of spring 2022, there are approximately 400. There’s also an impressive group of support staff and teachers, including physical therapy, speech therapy, counselors and teaching assistants. The school’s horticultural program aims to help students understand our ties to the earth and where our food comes from while cultivating a garden group class environment.
During off season the students attend their gardening lessons indoors. In late winter and spring they learn about seedlings and germination. The academy has a culinary teacher who formerly ran a farmer’s market and taught culinary lessons. During harvest months, she uses some garden produce and herbs for teaching and cooking. When there’s a plentiful harvest, like recent bumper crops of collard greens and basil, the school’s cafeteria makes use of the produce.What is a Sensory Garden?
When we think about the five senses and the limitations some of these students live with, a sensory garden seems perfect for expanding their life experience. Peter McCoy talks about the scented leaf plants like rosemary, thyme, apple mint, peppermint, lemon balm, lavender and geraniums – just to name a few that can be pleasantly experienced with the olfactory senses. On the other hand, using marigolds, which don’t smell as sweet, makes it easy to understand how they repel pests in the garden.
Peter says they are experimenting with sensitive Touch-Me-Not plants, whose leaves fold in when they’re touched. Pleasant to the touch are soft and fuzzy plants like lambs’ ears. Plants like the mammoth sunflowers are visually fascinating, and spending time in the garden helps the students experience the cycles of nature and the roles of bees, bugs, birds, spiders and other organisms who take up residence there.
When we consider how special needs citizens were treated in the past, this school makes one believe in the beauty of human nature and compassion. Thank you, Dr. McCoy and colleagues.
Every year, Gardening Know How awards $1,000 to 20 different, hand-picked garden projects across the United States and Canada. If your community or school garden has a growing, unmet need for more soil, seeds, fertilizers, building materials, or even just help getting the word out about your program, we’re ready and willing to help you meet those needs. As community gardens and school gardening programs spring up all over, we’re happy to do our part to help. Click here to learn more about how to apply.
Interested in learning more about school or community gardens? Visit our Community Gardening for Everyone page today.
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I’m always using random junk I find to use for plants. Out in the sticks there are no shopping malls and I am averse to using mail order too much, preferring to support small businesses when I can. So I am stuck with being creative with DIY planters. Almost any item fills my head with planter ideas, but I have one which I have cherished for over a decade.
We have a friend who was in the Iraq war. He served honorably as a mechanic and came back a changed person. He also came back with some items he had acquired in his tour of duty. One of these items he gifted to me and I decided to do something decidedly different with it than its original purpose.Beat Up Beauty
It just so happened we were visiting him one spring and I spied an old, beat up, semi-rusty metal tool box. The thing seemed magically imbued with charm to my eyes, and I asked for it. He readily agreed, and in moments it was my new prized possession. Unbeknownst to him, we had gone spring plant shopping prior to our visit, and the car was filled with goodies. The sight of this old tool box sent visions of beauty racing through my brain.
When we got home, I had to find a metal drill bit and make some holes in this interesting item because, of course, it was going to be a planter. Upcycling in the garden is quite hip nowadays, but it wasn’t always the case. I am cheap, however, and have always found the whimsy in discarded items.
Potting mix went into the box followed by some pretty annual flowers. They bloomed until the cold season when I emptied the tool box and stored it in the garage.
The next year, I again installed flowers and got many compliments on the odd planter. By year three, I did something new. I put in hens and chicks culled from a large patch in the garden. The effect was appealing and is still what lives in the tool box. I now leave it outdoors year around and the tool box only gets more rustic. The hens and chicks are a perfect foil for the beat up box and their blooms brighten the whole effect. They spread and filled in the container with no room to spare, but they seem quite happy to be packed in like sardines. I have taken a pup or two for other installations, which doesn’t bother the plants at all.This One is Special
I have many odd planters that I use. I “stole” a metal washtub from the neighboring abandoned home’s yard and use it for a variety of flowers. It didn’t need holes drilled in it because it had a drain which works sufficiently. This vertical planter is fun because it raises the flowers up for closer viewing. But my favorite DIY planter is still that old tool box. I honor where it once was and our friend’s service every time I see it. However, I think it makes a better plant home than an instrument to continue war.
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As a child, I loved the velvety-soft leaves and purple flowers of African Violets. These tiny little plants were the perfect size for the limited space on my plant table. (The plant table was my parent’s way of restricting the size and number of plants in my collection.) Yet, caring for an African Violet is not child’s play.Early Attempts at Taking Care of African Violets
Although I loved my childhood collection, I did much better with plants that could withstand a bit of neglect. I was far more successful with my cacti and succulents than African Violets. In fact, I seem to recall purchasing African Violet after African Violet, only to have these poor plants immediately succumb to my ill-attempts at caring for them.
Hailing from the coastal woodlands of east Africa, these velvety houseplants like bright, diffused light and moist soil. Many houseplants feel the same way. With African Violets, however, the tolerance range between too much sun or water and too little sun or water is much narrower.
Thus, the African Violets of my childhood were often overwatered or underwatered. I didn’t fully understand their sunlight needs and I’m quite sure I never gave them a boost with an aptly-applied fertilizer. Eventually, I quit wasting my hard-earned allowance and adopted the mindset that African Violets were impossible to keep alive.Understanding African Violet Care
Recently, I’ve come to realize these adorable little houseplants are not particularly hard to grow, but they do require specific care. Once I understood the basic requirements of an African Violet houseplant, it was only a matter of giving this beloved plant what it needs to make it happy.
What brought about this revelation? It all started as the result of impulse buying. Years ago, I found a horse planter at my local farm store. I knew when I saw it, I had to have it. Nonetheless, when I got home, I realized how useless this planter really was.
The planter consisted of a horse lying next to a pump-style faucet. The water trough below the faucet held the plant. The odd shape of the planter precluded using a drip tray inside the house. If I chose to use the planter outdoors, the limited amount of dirt the planter could hold, would mean watering several times a day.
For years, the planter was relegated to clutter status. That is, until I decided to place a table in front of an east-facing window. It was the perfect spot for a houseplant.
Determined to make the horse planter work, I searched for a liner that could be put inside the 5 inch (13 cm.) wide water trough. Turns out, a cut-down, quart-sized yogurt container was perfect. A 4-inch (10 cm.) pot would fit nicely inside the yogurt container.
Then I ran into problem number two. The horse’s nose and the faucet hung over the water trough. This made it impossible to use tall, bushy-type houseplants. I needed something low growing. Thinking English ivy, I headed to the nearest store that carried a variety of plants.
That’s when I saw it. Sitting on the clearance shelf was a lowly-looking African violet. Horrid flashbacks from my childhood filled my head, but I knew I had to make amends for all the poor African violets that had fallen victim to my youthful ways. I impulsively placed the plant in my cart.
I have to admit, sometimes my impulsive behavior makes me a better gardener. My little African Violet is now thriving and happy in my horse planter. African violet plant care is much easier than I remember. I follow these basic care requirements:
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Most gardeners have always had a passion for their craft. Others developed their love of plants unexpectedly at some point. But one thing seems to remain constant regardless of when the gardening bug bit – childhood memories. The vast majority of us can at least recall specific memories from our childhoods that include the garden. For me, it was my grandfather and his strawberry patch. I also fondly remember my mother’s large vegetable gardens and canning much of the harvest. Needless to say, gardening is something that kids remember, and it’s also something that can carry on through into adulthood.Ideas That Can Inspire an Interest in Gardening
For the most part, kids love getting out in the garden. Getting dirty, exploring and learning about their surroundings are all natural aspects of growing up. Granted, there may be resistance in older kids at first, but they generally come around. And there’s no guarantee that they’ll stick with gardening once grown, but they’ll always remember. I struggled with getting my grown kids interested in gardening, even though they’d been around it much of their childhood. But if you start planting the seed at a young age, at some point in their adulthood they will come to appreciate those lessons learned, even if they’ve shown little interest in between.
My daughter, for example, used to love helping me in the garden as a little girl. As time went on, however, life took over and she put gardening to bed. And although she may try to avoid the pastime, you can see the sense of pride and accomplishment written across her face when a plant has survived her neglect against all odds and bloomed. It’s still there… maybe buried deep, but it’s there.
With the grandkids, it seems to just come naturally. They absolutely love the garden and every time they visit Nana, all the plants must be watered. If there’s any fruit to harvest, they’ll take care of that too. They even have their own play area complete with digging tools and a planting bed. So how does one get their kids in the garden? Here are 10 ways to get kids interested in gardening:
Gardens are well known for triggering memories. While most kids in the garden continue harboring a lifelong affinity for plants, even those that aren’t known to garden as adults likely have a positive memory somewhere from their childhood that relates to gardening. All it takes is planting that one seed.
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Dog rescues around the country are trying to get out the message that it’s better to get a rescue pet than to buy one from a breeder. I’m in complete agreement with this position, and, in fact, I extend the idea to houseplants.
I very rarely buy houseplants and never, ever, splurge on fancy ones. With all the plants I find abandoned on the streets, my apartment and patio are overflowing with greenery.Rescue Houseplants
I like rescue houseplants. I sometimes think “rescue” is programmed in my DNA. I foster rescue pit bulls and any abandoned pets I come across. And I rescue every tossed houseplant that has a chance of making a new start. There are a lot. As a rough estimate, I think that some 500 plants have passed through my hands so far this year. These are generally not fancy, kid-glove plants, but hardworking houseplants that can, to a large degree, take care of themselves.
What do I do with all these plants? Some I fall in love with – often the ones that were in the worst shape to start – and add to the foliage family. The others I help to heal, shine up their leaves, and add them to a neighborhood plant give-away every six months or so. “Free houseplants” brings people running to the door. I also give them a card with my name and phone number in case they need guidance on caring for their new plant.Free Houseplants
While neighbors come out of the corners for free houseplants, it isn’t just a question of saving money. Like me, most of them are touched by the resilience of these survivor plants. I see many of the same people at the plant giveaways, but they have often dragged their houseplants or their friends along with them.
They like to tell me how much they paid for similar plants at the garden store. Even though these sound like tall tales, I know from personal experience that they are true. I tend to buy garden starts at the garden store and take the time to look at houseplant prices.
I don’t have any deep-seated conviction that spending money on houseplants is bad. But when I see a small jade plant for $12 or even $15, I gape in amazement. Jade plants are some of the easiest plants to root from cuttings, so these prices seem hard to justify.Crops and Fruit Trees
I must admit to buying vegetable starts and fruit trees. Although it is possible to find these as rescues, the odds of finding some just when the season for planting arrives are very slim indeed.
My most expensive purchase ever was a small Improved Meyer Lemon tree that is one of my favorites in my container orchard out back. Its flowers smell so great, and it almost always has a few lemons in different stages of ripening. But even that tree, which I bought on a whim, was under $20.
For those who love fancy or trendy plants, more power to you. Someone has to give those variegated monsteras a home. It just won’t be me.
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Recently, I made a bold career move. After more than thirty years as a writer, I decided to move my desk from a dark corner in the dining room to in front of a bright window at the back of house. It only seemed fitting that as a garden writer, I take advantage of the natural light and adorn my new home office with houseplants.Searching For the Right Houseplant
Unfortunately, I don’t have the luxury of claiming an entire room for a home office. As I would be sharing space in a bedroom, downsizing my desk was necessary. I quickly realized I only had room for one plant.
Knowing this had to be a special plant, I did something I rarely do. I decided to do my research first and not impulsively buy the first plant which caught my fancy. As I set up my new desk, I began imagining what type of plant I wanted.
Would it be tall and thin? Short and bushy? Did I want a flowering plant or something with attractive foliage. How about one of the rare and unusual houseplants I had written about over the years? Then it hit me.
The decor in the bedroom consisted of a pink and sage green quilt-patterned comforter and plain sage green curtains. A pink houseplant would provide the perfect accent for the corner of my desk. As I didn’t want to deal with spent flowers falling on my work surface, I began an internet search for a foliage plant with pink leaves.Rare Houseplants
When I pulled up a variegated Pink Princess philodendron, I knew my search had ended. Philodendrons are perfect plants for the office. They thrive in low light, require minimal watering and very little attention. I was about to hit the “Add to Cart” button, when I saw the price for my dream plant.
I was shocked. These adorable little houseplants were selling for $89.99. I decided to check out a few more websites only to discover ninety dollars was the market price for a 4” (10 cm.) potted pink philodendron.
Now I need to explain that I’m not the best with houseplants. For the most part, the plants I grow outdoors seem to thrive on the water Mother Nature provides. In dry times and when first transplanting seedling vegetable and flower plants, I water. But this is rarely more than short term care.
Houseplants require me to be on top of their watering needs for the lifetime of the plant. Yet, things happen. I get distracted and the next thing I know, my houseplant is wilted or worse. Thus, paying big bucks for a plant that may or may not live long enough to need repotting just doesn’t seem like a wise financial decision for me.Houseplant Solutions
Somewhat disillusioned, I continued my search for a houseplant with pink and green leaves. Nothing seem right, so I did what I usually do when I’m feeling frustrated. I went shopping. I had some errands to run, and I figured I could swing by the plant department and take a look.
I knew when I saw it that it was perfect for the corner of my desk. But it wasn’t a plant, it was a planter. The sage green ceramic dog planter had soulful eyes and a space to hold a round 4” pot. I could easily change houseplants in and out according to the season or even my mood. More importantly, it wouldn’t matter if I killed an inexpensive plant. It could be easily replaced.
Should the price come down, perhaps someday I will purchase a variegated pink philodendron. But for now, it doesn’t matter if I’m struggling to find the perfect word or experiencing a full-blown episode of writer’s block. When I look up from my laptop and see the refreshing and peaceful sage green color of my adorable doggie planter, I smile.
Plus, I discovered an additional perk. By looking at the planter several times a day, I can see when the plant needs water. And guess what? I haven’t killed it yet!
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It is no secret that I love succulents. Any kind, any size, any shape. I have a bit of trouble growing them in my home because we have low light, but I have solved that with plant bulbs. I have had many varieties through the years, many of which are still with me. One that I still have is also my favorite. It is a variegated Echeveria, a colorful rosette of waxy leaves. There are a great many species in the genus, most of which have the rosette form. My variety also goes by the name Mexican snowball, due to its compact form.
I have a bit of an addiction, but I seek no help for the condition. I’m a houseplant hoarder. Especially plants in the succulent family. They spend most of their days indoors until the summer sun begins to shine, when I move most of them outside for the season. I have many forms of succulent from an Elephant foot, to a jade, and even a snake plant. Some of my favorites are the little ones like Lithops, Senecio, Sedum, and certain Haworthia. One of the families with the most species is Echeveria. Each is a different and unique treasure. My variegated Echeveria is one of my favorites.My Echeveria’s Story
My plant came from a very humble place, Home Depot. In their houseplant section, they often have interesting specimens. When I spied this little guy I simply could not resist. It was just a baby and became part of a succulent dish. There were several other variegated succulents included in the display. The plant and its fellow denizens were housed in a very colorful yellow, shallow, Mexican planter for years. Over time, I had to move some of the plants to individual containers as they grew. The Mexican snowball persists in that shallow dish and has rewarded me with several offsets or pups, which I have removed and potted up to give away. Unfortunately, the pups did not carry the parent plant’s trait of variegation. They were simply green, but no less adorable.
This Echeveria is a cutie. After about ten years, it is barely bigger than a man’s fist, but it still has the delicate colors that first attracted me. The centers of the leaves that are at the heart of the rosette are green with a silvery cast. As the leaves emerge they are decorated with pink edges and finish off with a bright pink tip. In the Echeveria group there are many variegated succulents. Most of these are not naturally derived but are bred to produce such traits. Just because a Mexican snowball has variegation, it is not a guarantee it will pass that along to its pups, as in my plant’s case.Propagating Echeveria
However, I did do a little experiment on this favorite of mine. I took a leaf and allowed the end to callus or dry out a bit. Then I inserted it into some mildly damp sand and waited. It took a while, but the leaf finally rooted. Over months it developed a little rosette and I had a duplicate of my original plant. This little guy is still small, but it will eventually grow as big as his mama.
There are over 100 species of Echeveria, each with its own coloring and some bearing unique variegation. I’m guessing mine is Echeveria elegans, but there is no way to be sure because the plant tag didn’t specify the species. E. elegans is a very common and popular houseplant. Outside I have several variegated plants, each of which I love. When the leaves fall or the plant dies back for winter, I always have my indoor Echeveria and its son.
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If I am not sitting somewhere writing, or planting seeds in the garden, my favorite thing to be doing is hiking. I like strolling too, but nothing beats climbing up mountain trails to see amazing vistas I have never seen before. Fortunately for me, the two places I call home both offer exceptional hiking.Hiking in the City by the Bay
For a major urban center, the greater San Francisco Bay area offers enough hikes to fill up every weekend, enough to keep your heart pumping and the adrenalin coursing. Some are in the city, others in nearby regions.
In town, hiking is a great way to engage with the City by the Bay. There is the excellent San Francisco Cross Town Trail that runs an impressive 17 miles from Candlestick Park in the Southeast to Land’s End in the Northwest. I’ve been in San Francisco, on and off, since law school, but this trail introduced me to neighborhoods, parks and fantastic stairways that I have never visited before.
Golden Gate Park has trails aplenty as well, including the Land’s End Trail near my house that leads from the old Sutro Baths area, along the coast but high above it, to Baker Beach and, ultimately, the Golden Gate Bridge. Then there is the Presidio’s 25 miles of trails too.
For more wonderful hiking, head north to Marin’s incredible Mount Tamalpais trails, and also the bluff trails between the Muir Woods National Redwood Park and the rocky beaches below. Or head south to Pacific and Santa Cruz, plus the many Pescadero marsh trails too.Hiking in Basque Country
My little house in France sits in the Pyrenees, right on the border between France and Spain. These mountains contain hundreds of “contraband” trails, routes used to smuggle goods across the border before the EU opened the doors to easy travel. Also, during Franco’s rule in Spain, Basques were targeted by this fascist regime and many of those that could, escaped over the mountain trails into welcoming France.
While the French trails don’t take you to cool new neighborhoods, they have their share of thrills as you wind up and over the peaks. There is a marked trail that leads all of the way to the Mediterranean Sea on the other side of the country, as well as the famous Saint Juan de Compostela that runs from Saint Jean Pied a Port to the little Spanish ste of Compostela.
Hiking is wonderful in both California and France, and I feel incredibly lucky to have the chance to experience both.
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I often think of vegetable gardening as a warm weather activity. Truthfully though, I grow several frost tolerant vegetables for a late fall harvest. I plant these crops in the spring after all danger of frost has passed. Other than weeding, mulching and watering, I pretty much ignore these veggies throughout the summer.
As temperatures begin to drop in the late summer and early fall, these veggie plants seem to spring into action with renewed growth and less damage from invertebrate pests. Long after frost has killed my beloved tomato and pepper plants, I continue to harvest these garden favorites right up until a killing freeze is in the forecast:Bright Lights Swiss Chard
From an early age, I can remember my mother cooking homegrown Swiss chard. Whether it was picked fresh or had been preserved by freezing, she would start this leafy green side dish by caramelizing an onion in olive oil.
Fresh Swiss chard would be sauteed until tender. If it came from the freezer, she would chuck the frozen blob in the pan to thaw. Either way, as she stirred the pot, the leaves and stems would be coated with the caramelized onion oil. As with most dishes from my childhood, the memory of my mom’s chard can’t compete with my own cooking.
Swiss chard is an easy crop to grow and I love how the vivid colored stems of the Bright Lights variety add eye appeal to my veggie patch. I start my seeds indoors and transplant the seedlings into the garden at the same time as my pepper and tomato plants.
I’ve never had an issue with my Swiss chard bolting like other leafy cold season crops. Come fall, I cut off any overly mature outer leaves and then harvest by the cut-and-come-again method until the chard succumbs to winter weather.Parsnips
Another childhood favorite, my mother would roast parsnips in olive oil sprinkled with black pepper. My maternal grandmother grew up on a farm and I’m guessing this simply-prepared dish was handed down from generation to generation.
I will admit, growing parsnips is difficult for me. For starters, it’s absolutely essential to use fresh seed. I’m a seed saver and throwing out old seeds isn’t my nature. Nonetheless, I force myself to purchase fresh parsnip seeds every year.
Additionally, the foliage of parsnips looks like weeds to me. I make sure I thoroughly mark where I plant parsnips so that I don’t accidently pull them out. Once I’ve thinned and mulched my patch of parsnips, it’s simply a matter of waiting patiently for the taproots to enlarge.
Parsnips are one of the vegetables that tolerate frost well. Thus, I only harvest dinner-sized portions at a time. The rest can remain in the ground until right before the soil freezes. If any parsnips are left in the garden by then, I roast and freeze them for a microwavable side dish.Late Flat Dutch Cabbage
Cabbage is such a versatile veggie. I like to pair fresh slaw with pulled smoked pork sandwiches, but I also like to serve fried cabbage with pierogies. As a traditional dish handed down to me from my mother, I use the larger cabbage leaves to make cabbage rolls. These freeze nicely for no-prep meals during the winter.
Like Swiss chard and parsnips, cabbage is one of the vegetables that survive frost. I plant my cabbage in late spring. Except for the occasional side of cole slaw, I don’t harvest very much cabbage in the summer.
Instead, I focus on culinary dishes made with warm weather crops. I know these will be gone much sooner from the garden. Which is why I like the Late Flat Dutch cabbage variety. It takes 100 days to reach maturity. Which means, it’s ready in time for fall. If I have too much to use fresh, it freezes well. In addition to the summer crops I’ve preserved, these cold weather favorites add variety to the dinner table all winter long.
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There is no plant I associate more with Christmas than poinsettia. Pine trees, evergreen garlands, and holly are all great, but the poinsettia is a staple of the holiday season. It’s classic mix of red and green is festive and beautiful.A History of Poinsettia and Christmas
My personal history with poinsettia goes back as far as I can remember. It’s a plant I always saw around the holidays. Living in Michigan, this Mexican native wasn’t in anyone’s garden. It only appeared in winter as temporary houseplants.
The wider history of poinsettia as a Christmas decoration is much, much older. The simple answer for why these plants represent Christmas is the color scheme. Few plants have such a striking combination of holiday colors with the deep green leaves and bright red bracts surrounding the small flowers.
Poinsettias are native to Mexico and Central America. According to legend, a young girl picked weeds as the only gift she could afford to give the baby Jesus. When she left them at the nativity scene, they bloomed into the beautiful poinsettia we know today.
The real history likely begins with monks in Mexico in the 1600s who used poinsettias and other plants to decorate nativity scenes. The plant’s common name comes from a U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Joel Robert Poinsett, who brought the plants home in the 1800s. From that point on, they became popular holiday decorations.Caring for a Christmas Poinsettia
Unfortunately for me, I can’t have poinsettia in the house. If you have a dog or cat that nibbles on plants, you may want to avoid it. Poinsettia is not as toxic as some have claimed in the past, but it can cause irritation and vomiting. If you have the chance to include poinsettia in your Christmas displays, know how to take care of this tropical plant:
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